The Influence of Japanese Primatology

Now that Japanese primatology exists 60 years, it is time for the rest of the primatological community to celebrate, because we owe so much to the pioneers from the East. This is not fully realized by the younger generation, and the older generation still remembers the disparaging remarks made about the way the Japanese scientists worked, which was considered fraught with anthropomorphism and blamed with a lack of rigorous quantification. One Western colleague even told me that as a student he was forbidden to read any of the Japanese papers.

In the meantime, however, Imanishi’s students set out to identify individuals (giving them names or numbers), following them over their lifetime (they knew their kinship relations), and speculating about culture in their animals. All of this is now, of course standard practice, and kinship structure and cultural transmisison have become mainstays of primatology. In the end Japanese primatology won by developing the approach that now everyone uses.

The linked article by Tetsuro Matsuzawa and Bill McGrew, just out in Current Biology, offers some interesting new insights in Imanishi.


Here a picture of a potato washing monkey at Koshima Island (photo: Frans de Waal).

Just to add one anecdote, described in my book The Ape and the Sushi Master (pp. 110-113, which includes a section on Imanishi), here is what happened when a Western “enemy” visited him:

Kinji Imanishi and the Rabid Englishman

“In my Western way, I came to Kyoto, the home of Imanishi and his School seeking the man and his ideas, but I came as an avowed opponent.”
Beverly Halstead, 1984

An eccentric Englishman, who couldn’t resist comparing himself to a Nineteenth Century explorer, landed on an Eastern shore, in 1984. As if possessed, he hammered away day and night on an old typewriter until he had a rather disorganized product in hand: a volume of over two hundred pages. Along with naïve comments on a society that he didn’t seem to like, the rambling text defended Darwin against the dominant Japanese scientist of the day, Kinji Imanishi. All of this was accomplished in a one-month period, thus defying the old saw that in order to write about Japan one needs to stay either three weeks or thirty years.

Beverly Halstead’s colonial attitude was complete: a heavy load of prejudice about the country he was visiting, absence of knowledge about his adversary (all of Imanishi’s important works are in Japanese, a language Halstead admitted not knowing), manipulation by the locals (the author had been invited by left-wing professors out to undermine Imanishi without getting their hands dirty), and earth-shaking cultural discoveries, such as that the Japanese are more individualistic than one might think.

As Westerner, it is impossible to read Halstead’s manuscript – dug up from a Kyoto library – without curling one’s toes in embarrassment, especially realizing that the text subsequently appeared in Japanese. The Englishman didn’t waste time on politeness. At one point, he managed to meet Imanishi in person, an opportunity he used to lecture the 82-year-old Emeritus Professor. After having handed the father of Japanese primatology a gift – a bottle of whisky – he confronted him with a carefully translated document with statements such as “Imanishi’s evolution theory is Japanese in its unreality” and “You see the wood, but the trees are not in focus.” No wonder, Halstead describes Imanishi’s facial expression on this occasion as one of profound regret at having agreed to the encounter.

What could possibly have compelled Halstead to be so rude? Why, upon return to his home land, did he write an article that trashed not only Imanishi’s views but an entire culture? How did Nature even dare to run it with a patronizing opening line such as: “The popularity of Kinji Imanishi’s writings in Japan gives an interesting insight into Japanese society”? If the whole affair provides any insight at all, it is in Halstead’s personality.

The late Beverly Halstead, from the University of Reading in Great Britain, was by training a geologist and paleontologist. Known for Communist sympathies in his early years, he later became a flag-bearer for Darwinism. Once described as “Darwin’s Terrier” (in a play on T. H. Huxley as “Darwin’s Bulldog”), Halstead had a professional life peppered with spectacular quarrels. An obituary in The Independent of May 3, 1991, highlights the nature of his combative attitude: “[He] was never the rebel but the supporter of traditional orthodoxy against what he saw as misplaced enthusiasm for the new.”

I guess, he was the kind of person who sought security in doctrine – any doctrine. We all know the kind: the former Marxist who turns devout Catholic, or the people who escape the grasp of a sect only to become born-again Christians. Halstead was definitely not Christian (“Darwin rendered the entire edifice of Christianity redundant,” he wrote), but clearly thirsted for dogma.

To him, Imanishi’s disagreement with Darwin was blasphemy. He came to set the old man straight, and with him an entire nation that, in his words, was engaged in a peculiar conspiracy to mislead everyone about themselves. The emphasis in Japan on social harmony is pure self-deception, Halstead concluded, because we all know that underneath there must exist incredible competition.

This was an interesting thought coming from a former Communist.

Halstead, L. B. (1984). Kinji Imanishi: The View from the Mountain Top. Unpublished English manuscript in the Kyoto University Library, later published in Japanese.

– Frans de Waal

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One thought on “The Influence of Japanese Primatology

  1. Very interesting article. I have never heard of these writings (or the story in general), but I am not surprised. Misrepresentations of Japan and the Japanese people are very common. I had no idea that Japan had such a strong influence on Primatology.

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